Text Study for Luke 10:1-20 (Part One)

The lectionary committee has done violence to our text by omitting Luke 10:12-15. Richard Swanson writes that, in omitting these verses, the lection “omits the allusion that clarifies this scene. Woes are pronounced on cities that have not offered a welcome to Jesus and his movement,” Swanson continues, “but before those woes comes a reference to Sodom, the city that exemplifies the refusal of the duty of hospitality” (page 159).

I suspect that the lectionary folks desired to make the reading a little less “PG-13” in its content by excising the reference to Sodom. In addition, the lectionary folks demonstrate a consistent distaste for verses which show Jesus as angry, vengeful, and pronouncing judgment on others. This editorial concern reinforces the notion that the “God of the Old Testament” is one of vengeance while Jesus’ “God of the New Testament” is one of love and grace and mercy.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

That simple dichotomy is inaccurate, uncomplicated, and does not respect the authority and integrity of the text. Levine and Witherington suggest that verses such as Luke 10:12-15 “should serve as a corrective” for such simplistic and self-serving (from a Christian perspective) interpretations. In a footnote, they observe that “Jesus has more to say about the reality of Hell (which he calls Gehenna) than Paul, or any other NT writer, save John of Patmos in Revelation” (page 281).

These observations make the universalist hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. However, the textual point cannot be disputed. And it should not be minimized by the fiat of lectionary excisions. It’s in the text, and we should deal with it. That’s especially true when the excised text is necessary for an accurate and fulsome interpretation and reading of the text.

That being said, we can take the opportunity to review the nature of “the sin of Sodom” (whether that actually makes it into the message or not). I will quote Levine and Witherington on the matter. “Regarding the sin of Sodom, which prompted the destruction, the prophet Ezekiel makes clear that the Sodomites were destroyed because of a lack of hospitality, an allusion already prompted by the rejection of Jesus in Samaria (9:54), when James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven. Since,” they continue, “Jesus’ statement appears in the context of households either accepting or rejecting the disciples, the concern for Sodom’s hospitality is here also invoked” (page 280).

Swanson offers these comments. In the ancient Mediterranean world, “wanderers are to be treated as family, welcomed and fed.” This is the principle which is violated if and when any of the seventy are refused hospitality. “thus it was that when the citizens of Sodom sought to abuse and humiliate guests in Lot’s house,” Swanson continues, “he offered them his daughters instead. This is inconceivable in any social system,” he concludes, “except one that places the responsibility for hospitality even above one’s responsibility for immediate family” (page 160).

This connection to the destruction of Sodom puts the the members of the “Seventy Sent” in the role of the messengers to Sodom in Genesis 19. Two messengers came to Sodom, and Lot offered them hospitality. Remember that the Seventy Sent are to travel two by two on their mission. That mission, in Genesis 19, is to offer rescue to those will accept the news of Sodom’s impending destruction. We can see that mission of rescue described in Genesis 19:12. The messengers urgently inquire about the extent of Lot’s family and community. They should get out while the getting is good.

Of course, the two messengers will also bring destruction to Sodom, but not before those who want the rescue have been saved. Swanson’s contention that the omitted verses are critical to our interpretation bear fruit now. The Seventy Sent bear a message of eschatological urgency. The time for “harvest” has drawn near. The message of rescue from destruction is carried by the missionaries and enacted in their healing and preaching. There is still time to respond before the end.

Messengers from Jesus need our welcome. When we include the excised verses in our reading and reflection, I think we get a much more interesting and applicable text for preaching and teaching. If and when someone needs our welcome, we settled folks should pay special attention to what they need and what they say. Of course, that reverses our expectation, especially in our time. We church folks expect to be consumers, not involuntary workers in the hospitality industry. We expect those who bring Jesus’ message to give us something of value before we compensate them with anything approaching hospitality.

Who are those who long for welcome and hospitality in our Christian communities? The mention of Sodom in our text will certainly bring to mind for some in our pews their continuing anxieties and hostilities regarding the welcome, inclusion, and leadership of LGBTQIA+ people in our communities. It should be clear that we cisgender, heterosexual, non-queer people have gotten this all backwards. Those who seek hospitality at our eucharistic table and in our pulpits bring the message from Jesus. If we refuse that hospitality, we find ourselves in the role of Sodom (and all the other villages listed).

That is still shocking to some so-called mainline Christians and many, many Evangelical Christians. It is our refusal of hospitality that is the sin of Sodom. This is old news for many who have been in this struggle for a lifetime and more. But it will continue to be new and shocking information for too many in the pews I have faced over the last forty years.

This can be dangerous work for the messengers, as we can see from the text. It will be worth reading this text as if we are the Seventy Sent, but let’s not jump to that perspective too quickly. Let’s focus on our place, most of the time, as the “home team” rather than the “away team.” What do the messengers bring? They bring first of all the palpable gift of God’s peace to the household. They cure the sick and proclaim the presence of the Reign of God. That presence arrives whether it is welcomed or not (see the end of verse 11).

This could be an opportunity to think about our default assumptions when we deal with newcomers to our worshiping communities. We focus primarily on two things: what we have to “offer” to the newcomers (treating them as church-shopping consumers), and how we can assimilate them into the ways things already are (treating them as potential threats to our status quo — threats that must be neutralized to sustain the stability of the current community). Since these are our default responses and assumptions, it’s no wonder that in many of our communities, newcomers pass through our midst with hardly a notice or ripple.

What if, instead, we would regard newcomers as some of the latest recruits to the Seventy Sent? Those who need our welcome are the ones Jesus sends with important messages. Perhaps that message is information about the needs of the community beyond our walls. Perhaps that message is a challenge to be more responsive to that community and the larger world. Perhaps that message is a new perspective, a new way of doing or seeing things, a new connection to the wider world. Newcomers need our hospitality and bring us news.

I learned in parish ministry to regard newcomers as such messengers. “I wonder,” I often thought to myself, “what new thing the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish among us by sending this new person?” Sometimes that new thing was a creative new opportunity. Sometimes that new thing was a challenge to rethink and revise how we did or viewed something. After all, one of the benefits of being a newcomer is that you don’t know that it can’t be done that way.

Jesus equips the Seventy Sent with power and authority to do just what he commissions them to do. And, as we read in the last part of the text, it works! If we can get ourselves out of the way, newcomers can indeed bring new life and mission into our midst. That will produce change, discomfort, challenge, displacement, and disagreement. That’s a necessary part of the process. But the outcome is another victory in the battle against sin, death, and the devil.

“Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he invites us to walk with him,” Marilyn Salmon writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “His words here speak to every generation of Christian disciples and inspire a sense of urgency about bringing God’s realm near. As we begin,” Salmon concludes, “we are called to examine customs we create to protect our comfort and ease, beginning with the practice of hospitality.”

Well, that’s a start for the week anyway.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Six)

Can a person change? The Lukan author certainly thinks so. Change happens in the Lukan account when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. Repentance – personal change of mind and heart – is the result of encounters with Jesus. Such change is not the precondition for such life-altering interactions. Jesus goes looking for tax collectors and sinners in order to invite them into a new way of living.

John Kilgallen argues that the Pharisees – at least in the Lukan account – shared Jesus’ intention that sinners should repent and find new life. The disagreement was about the most effective and appropriate method. He suggests that the Pharisees, as portrayed in the Gospel accounts, went to great lengths to make sure that the Law was fulfilled – such as washing to the elbows in order to make sure one’s hands were clean. More to our point, they tended to avoid contact with “sinners” in order to impress upon the community the importance of repentance.

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The assumption of the Pharisees, as described in the Gospel accounts, is that sin could infect the righteous. Thus, the company of sinners should be avoided when possible. “Not only should one not suggest an indifference to the lives of sinners,” Kilgallen writes of the Pharisees, “but one should avoid them lest one fall into their sinfulness. Finally,” he continues, “how best to influence a change in behavior of sinners, if not to avoid them and so make them ever conscious of their sinfulness?” (page 591).

Jesus adopts the opposite strategy. He welcomes tax collectors and sinners and eats with them. Kilgallen notes that this is a narrative concern and focus at least four times in the Lukan account. The concern begins in Luke 5:27-32 with the call of Levi, the tax-collector. Jesus takes the initiative with Levi and calls him to be a follower. Levi gets up, leaves everything, and follows Jesus. In Lukan terms, Levi becomes an ideal disciple.

In response to this gracious call, Levi hosts a large dinner party at his house, apparently with Jesus as the guest of honor. The table was occupied by a large crowd of tax-collectors as well as other people. The Pharisees and their scribes observed this party (from some distance, we can assume) and were complaining to Jesus’ disciples. They asked, “On what basis do you all eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30, my translation). The grammar of the question makes it clear that they want to hear some justification for the unusual strategy.

Jesus tells the Pharisees and their scribes that avoidance is the wrong treatment. A physician wouldn’t do much good for a patient by avoiding contact with that patient. Physicians stay away from those who have no need of treatment. But the tax collectors and sinners need this gracious, personal, direct, and sustained contact with Jesus. “I haven’t come to call the righteous ones,” Jesus concludes, “but rather sinners into repentance” (Luke 5:32, my translation).

In this account, Kilgallen argues, we now have the reason for Jesus’ unusual strategy. We don’t yet have a description of why this mode of “treatment” will work. The next reference in the Lukan account to tax collectors and sinners moves the conversation forward. We find that mention in Luke 7:31-35. On the one hand, Jesus’ opponents have criticized John the Baptist for being too austere. On the other hand, they criticize Jesus for having too much to eat and drink and for being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

Jesus drops a cryptic quip in response. “Wisdom is justified on the basis of all her children” (Luke 7:35, my translation). In other words, the wise person looks at the results, not just at the theory. The quip serves as the lead-in to the forgiveness of the “sinful woman” at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus’ strategy results in repentance and reconciliation on the part of the woman. Simon the Pharisee is left as he is, forgiven little and loving less.

“What Jesus offers now in chap. 7,” Kilgallen writes, “is a proof that his method is justified, for…he points to a number of people who have done what God and Wisdom have asked: they have repented” (page 595-596). So far then, we have the reason for Jesus’ strategy and some general demonstrations of its effectiveness. This takes us to the next mention of tax collectors and sinners – in Luke 15.

The same complaint appears. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responds, in the Lukan account, with the three parables. Kilgallen notes two points in the first two parables. “They show that it is unremitting searching that finds what was lost,” he writes, “not disinterest in or distance from sheep or coin…Moreover,” Kilgallen continues, “finding what was lost leads surely to great joy and celebration. The latter aspect, that of rejoicing over finding what was lost, confirms the value of searching, achieving happiness for going after what was lost till it is found. Indeed,” Kilgallen observes, “one cannot imagine how else the sheep and the coin will be found except by continued searching” (page 596).

The third parable shows the life and death stakes of the seeking and finding. The parable of the Prodigal Son “means only to reinforce what the first two parables had made clear: whatever can produce joy in heaven is worth doing. One cannot prefer not searching after sinners, if one is convinced that such searching is the way,” he argues, “the best and necessary way to produce joy, and life.” Luke 15, then, gives the reason for Jesus’ strategy of welcoming sinners and eating with them. If God is rejoicing, it must be a good thing.

The final installment of the tax collectors and sinners throughline is, of course, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. This time it is an anonymous voice from the crowd that grumbles loudly. “He went along with a sinful man to be a guest!” It’s not just eating and drinking this time. Jesus is staying at the house, taking up lodging for a brief stretch. Jesus has raised the stakes of the interaction even higher.

“For our purposes,” Kilgallen suggests, “the most striking feature we find in this story is the fact that we have been given a clear example of the result that comes from Jesus’ fraternizing with sinners” (page 598). The results of Jesus’ strategy are individual repentance and promises of repair consistent with Old Testament regulations in Exodus 21, Leviticus 6, and Numbers 5. Welcoming (and being welcomed) by tax collectors and sinners and eating with them is what it takes to seek and to save the “lost.”

The criticism from the crowd comes as a reminder that Jesus’ strategy is not the accepted way of dealing with tax collectors and sinners. The result meets this criticism head on. In addition, Zacchaeus didn’t come predisposed or prepared to repent, Kilgallen argues. Instead, he begins with “benevolent curiosity” rather than some expressed desire for repentance. “No,” Kilgallen concludes, “it is only the actual time spent with Jesus that accounts for repentance” (page 598).

Can a person change? The Lukan author certainly thinks so. Change happens in the Lukan account when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. I am reminded of a congregational ministry to, with, and for incarcerated people who are preparing to return to life “in the world.” The ministry revolves around Sunday worship, a communal meal, fellowship, and Bible study. Interested participants are interviewed to orient them to the nature and operation of the ministry. But the one real qualification for attending is whether or not one likes to eat.

I was often struck, when I was involved in that ministry, by the suspicion that such a gracious invitation evoked. The suspicion was understandable. Our guests were coming from a world in which no one ever did anything “for free.” For the first six to eight weeks that the typical guest attended, that guest would ask at least three or four times, “What do you want?” Nothing of value in this world is free, the questioner reasoned. Therefore, we must want something. The trick, they thought, was to figure out what “the catch” was.

There was no “catch.” A few of our guests never caught on to that fact. They tended not to stick with the ministry. But most of the guests had a personal epiphany during that initial time period. These people really don’t want anything from me. “Free” really means free. Grace really is grace. While these people don’t want anything from me, they certainly something for me. What they want for me is a life of wholeness and joy. And that’s it.

Honestly, we didn’t go into this ministry thinking about any of this. We were just trying to help some folks who weren’t getting much help. But, over and over, we got to witness the transforming power of real Grace. Personal change happens when Jesus seeks out people and spends “table time” with them. In the life of the Church, Jesus uses disciples to seek out people and spend that table time with them.

This is why eucharistic hospitality is really the measure of health and faithfulness in a congregation. Who we welcome to the table and under what “conditions” says everything you need to know about the life of a congregation. That welcome includes our willingness to put that table on legs and wheels and to meet people where they are, at their tables and in their lives. Going out to eat, as Jesus did, removes the last “condition” that might impede our eucharistic welcome.

Grace changes people. That’ll preach.

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.


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